Thursday, May 24, 2018

Jammed

            First off, so very sorry post have been irregular here as of late. Believe I’ve mentioned I’m juggling a few things.  One of which is the con I’m at right now.
            But we’ll talk about that in a bit...
            This week I wanted to revisit an idea that I’ve brought up a couple of times over the past few months.  I’ve heard it called a few different things, but my preferred term has always been flow.  First heard it that way from a wonderful author and writing teacher named Drusilla Campbell, and it always stuck with me.
            The visual I’d like to put in your head for flow is traffic. Regular old automobile traffic.  I’m going to go out on a limb and guess most of you reading this can drive, and the few who don’t have still ridden in a car.  And hopefully most of you have been to a city, or at least on a highway of some kind.
            So... let’s talk about the flow of traffic.
            Living in Los Angeles (and before that San Diego, and before that the greater Boston area), I’m very used to highway traffic.  Sometimes, often late at night, the highway is clear and wide open.  There’s barely anyone on the road and you can pretty much fly.
            Of course, even if there aren’t many cars on the road, something big can still create a traffic jam.  Major construction or a big accident can condense things down to one lane, and suddenly that very open road is densely packed and moving at a crawl.
            During the day it can be even worse.  When there’s a million people on the road (no exaggeration here in LA) one small problem can slow everything down.  A large one can bring things to a crashing halt.  Hell, there’s a big hill on the 405 through the Sepulveda Pass and it always causes traffic slowdowns, both ways, up and down.  I’ve been in traffic jams so bad you could actually shut your car off, get out, and stretch your legs for a bit.
            There are places where the very structure and layout of the freeway just naturally causes traffic jams. There’s no way to avoid it the way things have been constructed.  I know a couple stretches where—for no reason—the road goes from six lanes to three.  And then back up to five.  That mile of three lanes... it’s almost always clogged.
            Traffic patterns can even get messed up when people just start looking at the wrong thing. We’ve all been in massive slowdowns that are simply caused by people staring at something on the side of the road. Or sometimes on the other side of the road.  A big accident in the northbound lane can make everybody in the southbound lane slow down to take a look.
            Sometimes it works great, though.  Those million people can be on the road and it’s fantastic.  Everything works.  I’ve had times when I’ve been looking at all the cars on the road, but then looked down to realize I’m almost doing sixty-five.  We’re all going at almost sixty-five, in perfect sync.  I was just caught up in everything and didn’t even realize what was actually going on.
            But that flow can get disrupted so easily.  Again, one car going really slow.  One closed lane.  One distraction over on the shoulder.
            What’s the point of this little visualization?
            Reading a story is a lot like traffic.  It has a flow.  When the flow’s great, we barely notice how fast things are going.  We just zoom along and suddenly realize we’ve read a hundred pages and it’s dark out and where the hell am I?  A book that you can’t put down has great flow.  A book that you should love but you just can’t get into... probably doesn’t.
            Here’s a few things that have the potential of causing a traffic jam in my story.

Switching Tenses/Formats/POVs
            A friend of mine has a book where the main character slips into sort of a fever dream.  She’s sick, she’s been medicated, and now she’s... a bit out of it.  And so the next two chapters of the book are in stage play format.  It becomes a bit more separated from reality for the reader and we understand it’s more surreal for the character as well.
            Compare this to another book I read recently when, for no reason, maybe 15-20% of a page would suddenly be in screenplay format.  Dialogue, prose, prose, slugline, dialogue, stage direction, prose, dialogue.  It jarred me out of an otherwise wonderful book every single time, and the author did it every four or five pages.  I looked for patterns and tried to figure out if there was a recurring motif, but couldn’t find anything.  I loved the story, but I kept getting knocked out if it.
            There’s nothing wrong with doing clever things.  It’s highly encouraged.  But I need to have a reason to do them, because my readers are going to assume there’s a reason I did it. That’s natural, isn’t it? I made the effort to put it in the book, so there must be a point to it.  Bruce Joel Rubin once mentioned that when we stop experiencing stories in our gut, we go into our head and start analyzing them.  That’s when the flow breaks.  When we stop reading and start drawing mental diagrams.

Names
            I was reading this big sprawling generational family saga recently.  Not normally my kind of thing, but I’ve been trying to expand my reading umbrella lately.  And I’m overall glad I read it.
            But...
            One issue it had was that, by nature of being multigenerational, there were lots of people who were called “Dad,” and quite a few who were “Mom.”  And they were all Dad and Mom.  No “Pops” or “Papa” or “Daddy Dearest.”  No “Mum” or “Ma” or “Mother.”  Which got confusing because the book also jumped POV and timeframes a lot.  We might be in Yakko’s head for a chapter, then hop over to his granddaughter’s.  Which meant “Dad and Mom” is now referring to different people.  Some of them even had the same name, so there was a Yakko Jr. and a Yakko the III (fortunately grandpa had died)
            Anyway, what it amounted to was me going back to analyze the book every ten or fifteen pages to make sure the person behind this POV was who I thought they were.
            This is closely related to something else I’ve mentioned before—when lots of people have very similar names, especially when they all begin with the same letter.  We naturally lock on to that first letter to help keep things straight in our heads. If my story has a large cast featuring John, Jerry, Jacob, Jared, Justin, Jean, Jon, Jeri, Juan, Jenn, and Jess, people are (again) going to spend just as much time going backward to figure out who’s who as they are going forward to, well... read my story.

Vocabulary
            We work with words.  That’s a simple fact of the job.  And nobody wants to use common words.  We want to work with amazing words.  Exciting, sexy, awe-inspiring words that people will remember years from now.  Decades from now, even.
            But here’s the thing to remember.  The words don’t really matter. The story matters. The characters matter.  The actual words are just a delivery device.  They’re how I’m telling you the story.  As a writer and a reader, I don’t want to be focused on the act of communication more than what’s being communicated.  The words should be almost invisible.
            And the truth is... the common words are going to be a lot less visible than the uncommon words. As readers—as people—we notice the uncommon. It stands out. And in many cases... it’s distracting. 
            This isn’t to say we can’t use uncommon or obscure words. There should be a reason for using them, though, and that reason shouldn’t just be me wanting to show off the obscure word I learned on Doctor Who a few months ago.  They shouldn’t be stumbling blocks for my reader.  Again, they should be adding to the story, not the delivery device.

            That’s just a few things.  I’ve mentioned some others before.  Flow is kind of tough to get too specific about because something that causes a small bump for me might be slamming you into a metaphorical wall.  Or vice versa.
            Y’see, Timmy, that’s the biggest lesson about flow.  It’s an empathy issue.  It’s about being able to put myself in someone else’s shoes—a lot of other people’s shoes—and make an honest assessment about things.  Will this reference trip people up?  Is this structure confusing?  Is it easy to keep all these characters straight?
            Because if I can’t be honest about my work, there’s a good chance I’m going to jam things up.
            And if that happens too often, to stick with our traffic metaphor... people will start looking for alternate routes.  
           Next time, I’d like to talk about that opening chapter.  You know what I mean.  The P word.  Although, fair warning, next time might not be for two weeks or so.
            Oh, and hey—I’m at Phoenix Comic Fest right now!  Are you reading this? You should come find me. I’m that guy typing on his phone. And also talking on panels and signing stuff and all that.  Come by and say hi.
            And then go write.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Phoenix Comic Fest Schedule

            Hey, all.
            A couple people have asked for this, and I figured I could put it up here and link to it anywhere else.  Centralized blog and all that.  I’m on the cutting edge of 2007 tech, I know...
            Anyway, this is a crazy week for me, and here’s my schedule for said week

WEDNESDAY
7:00pm—at the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale AZ
Elevengeddon
            I am the 14th Geddon, one of a handful of surprise guests showing up here long with Eleven-plus really spectacular authors who are already on the list. Can’t make it to Phoenix Comic Fest?  Come meet me here and get things signed.
            And from here we move on to...


FRIDAY
10:30 am—North 126C
It's the End of the World as We Know It - Apocalyptic Fiction
            A favorite topic of mine, and I’m moderating this one (as well as chiming in with my own thoughts)

12:00 pm—North 125 AB
Leaping Tall Tales in a Single Bound - Stories of Superhuman Abilities
            Clearly a topic and one I’ve been studying for many years.  I have many thoughts and strong opinions on this, some of which I’ve elaborated here in the past.  I will share them and more.

1:30 pm—North 124AB
Book Signing
            Scribbling, scribbling, scribbling.  I love to meet folks and deface their books.  This is your big chance to get me to sign all your Craig DiLouie novels. 

8:00 pm--North 120CD
Drinks with Creators
            Just follow the flow of writers and artists.  You'll find us.  And then you can hang out and talk with us and be absorbed into out biomass.  Join us.  JOIN US...

SATURDAY
3:00 pm—North 126C
Writing Advice I Would Give My Best Friend
            I give writing advice sometimes.  Who knew?  Show up and see how good I am with on the spot questions. 

4:30 pm—North 124AB
Book Signing
            More scribbling, scribbling, scribbling.  Here’s your chance to get a copy of Ready Player One signed by me...


SUNDAY
10:30 am—North 126C
Bad to the Bone - Villains in Fiction
            Another topic on which I have many thoughts.

12:00 pm—Changing Hands signing area
Book Signing
            One final chance to have me scribble in books for you and bring down their resale value.

            And that’s this week.
            Plus, y’know, the usual post here on Thursday.
            Hope to meet some of you this week.  Until then... go write.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

But First... Some Death

            I’m still feeling a bit guilty about missing the Writers Coffeehouse this weekend, so here’s a quick thought about something that’s come up more than a few times with Saturday geekery movies...
            Every now and then I come across a story— very often, but not always, a horror story—which begins by introducing us to a big cast of characters.  Four or five friends going on vacation up at the lake.  Or maybe some kids partying in that abandoned house on the edge of town.  Or a group sneaking off into the woods at night for some passionate fun up in clearings and up against trees.  And then...
            They all die.
            Every one of them.
            Dead and gone. 
            Possibly even eaten. 
            All in the first ten minutes.
            At which point... we get introduced to our protagonists.
            If I had to guess, I think this kind of opening in stories has spun out of that oft-quoted, rarely understood rule “start with action.”  Writers want to dive in with a big opening.  And what’s bigger than killing people, right? 
            Now, I’m not against starting things with a bang.  Or against killing a character if it serves the story.  But there’s a two-fold issue when I fall back on this kind of opening...
            One is that I’m wasting perfectly good deaths.  No matter how funny or clever or nightmarish those deaths are, I’m pushing the audience into compassion fatigue.  And I’m not even doing it with people who matter.  I’m killing off all-but-nameless cutouts that my audience has no investment in and desensitizing them to the impact those other deaths could have.
            Two is that... well, this isn’t really a great narrative structure.  A key thing about every story is knowing where it begins. When I do something like this, it’s a false start.  It has almost no bearing on my actual plot or story. And that means my story probably begins sometime later.
            Yeah, there are always threads stretching before my first page.  Previous relationships, earlier jobs, a string of birthday parties, and, yes... even a few deaths.  But are they relevant to this story?  If I had to boil down what this story was about, to condense it into one page, would any of those early elements be on that page?
            Y’see, Timmy, if I hit a point where I've killed off every character I've introduced and my story’s not even close to over... there’s a good chance it means this is where my story actually starts.
            And I was just wasting everyone’s time before this.
            So stop wasting time.
            And go write.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Meanwhile, At A Secret Island Base...

            As has come up here once or twice or thrice, I like to watch bad movies (and usually offer a bunch of half-drunken live tweets as I do).  I’m a big believer in learning from the bad stuff over copying the good stuff.  Plus it’s kinda fun, in a masochistic sort of way.  I mean, statistically, somebody must’ve made a good shark movie, right?
            Yeah, sure, Jaws, but I’m thinking in the forty years since then...
            Anyway, a few times now I’ve noticed an issue that I’ve also caught in some literary fiction.  By which I just mean “fiction on the page,” to distinguish it from cinematic fiction.  It can be brutal in movies, but it stings in books, too.   So I wanted to blab on for a minute or three about an aspect of pacing that seems to get overlooked a lot.
            It’s a very natural part of storytelling to shift between locations or timeframes. At a particularly dramatic moment, we may leap over to a parallel storyline, or maybe flash back to a key moment that happened hours, weeks, or even years ago.  Depending on our chosen genre, we may leap across centuries or galaxies.
            And that’s cool.  We all love it when a story covers a lot of ground and shifts between points of view. It lets us tell multiple stories and tie them together in clever ways, or to get information across using different methods.
            But...
            There are still some things I need to keep in mind as a storyteller. As beings that live more-or-less linear lives, we tend to notice when there’s a jarring difference in the passage of time.  We understand that time spent here is also time spent there... even if we don’t see it happen.
            That’s the thing to keep in mind.  Just because we cut from scene A to scene B, it doesn’t mean scene A stops. Time still passes.  Characters keep doing things.  They continue to talk and discuss and explain and comment on things.
            It’s not unusual to skip over swaths of time in a narrative.  As I was recently reminded, we don’t need to see the four-day cross country trip if... well, nothing happens during those four days. No matter how beautiful the language or evocative the imagery is, if nothing happens to further the plot, it’s an irrelevant scene.  Or chapter, as it was in my case.
            But here’s the thing I need to remember.  That time is still passing.  My character may get on the bus at the end of chapter six and get off at the start of chapter seven, but that doesn’t mean the journey was instantaneous.  There were meals and probably some conversations and a few bathroom breaks and some sleeping.
            More to the point, it wasn’t instantaneous for everyone else.  Four days passed for all the other characters, too. Time progressed for everyone.
            Now, I can fudge this a bit in a book.  It’s much harder to do in a movie, but in a book we can be made to understand that time did come to a halt between chapters nine and eleven.  We went off to deal with something else for fifteen pages, yet when we come back everyone’s still standing here with pistols drawn, cards on the table, or awkward confessions hanging in the air.
            But...
            Yeah, another but.  Sorry.
            Whenever I have one of these cutaways, in prose or on screen, I need to consider the pacing and flow.  My readers will need to switch gears and jump into a new headspace for this different scene with different characters.  Sometimes it can be fantastic.  Cutting away can increase tension, ramp up the stakes, or just heighten emotions.  Done right, it can take my readers from screaming to laughing and back.
            Done wrong... and it just reminds people that things weren’t happening.  That the  action just froze during the time we shifted attention to something else.  The writer skipped over it... and they assume the characters did, too.
            I saw this in a friend’s book.  Some characters went through a major event together, drove two hours back home... and then started talking about what had happened.  And my comment was, what were they talking about during the two hour drive?  Or there was a recent geekery movie where one of the aspiring victims was running from the homicidal killer, and then we cut away to six or seven minutes of the local sheriff discussing the recent killings over coffee.  And then... back to the victim.  Still running.  Still with the killer a few yards behind...
            And I did it once, too. In an early draft of Ex-Heroes, right in the middle of the climactic battle, the story cut away to a slow, almost introspective flashback.  Conversations were had, moral decisions were made, and in the end a plan was created to help save as many—WAIT, back to the fight with the zombie demon!!
            My beta readers made fun of me, too.
            Part of this is a pacing issue. If the action is happening with breakneck, life-or-death speed in this scene, I probably want to be cautious about jumping over to a slow stretch of decompressed storytelling.  I don’t want my reader stumbling as they try to figure out what’s happening and when it’s happening.
            Y’see, Timmy, when that stumble happens, it knocks us out of the story.  The cutaway brings things to a jarring halt.  We go from experiencing the story to analyzing it.  Puzzling over it.  Maybe even... laughing at it.
            Laughing at, mind you.  Not laughing with.
            So be careful where you make your cuts.
            Next week I’d like to talk about another aspect of writing that’s really close to this, one I’ve been bringing up a lot lately, to be honest.  This’ll flow really well right into it.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Dogs and Cats! Living Together!

            Pop culture reference!  From a movie I used to love and now have mixed feelings toward because of a bunch of internet trolls.
            But anyway...
            I was working on a rough outline for a book I’m hoping to write next year, and it occurred to me that I’d written a classic device into the story. About halfway through the book, my protagonist saves her cat.
            ...in a really clever and freaky way, I assure you.
            You’ve heard that phrase before, yes?  Saving the cat?  I’ve talked about it here once or twice, and this little incident made me think it might be worth mentioning again.
            “Saving the cat” is a term screenwriter Blake Snyder came up with many years ago.  It’s when my character does something simple and quick early on in my story that gets everyone on their side.  The example Snyder uses is saving a cat.  My heroine sees a cat stuck in a tree, she gets the cat out of the tree.  No big deal, moving on, right?  It’s just a simple action or moment that assures my readers that this character is an overall decent human being.
            (fun fact—“saving the cat” is a reference to Ripley saving Jones in Alien. Seriously.  Look it up.)
            Remember in the first Captain America movie, when scrawny Steve Rogers stands up to Hodge out behind the movie theater, even though Hodge is twice his size?  That’s a saving the cat moment.  How about in Wesley Chu’s The Rise of Io, when the title character makes a point of sharing her food with the mangy dog that hangs around outside her apartment?  Or when poor unloved Harry Potter sympathizes with the snake in the zoo about being raised in captivity? 
            All of these are save the cat moments.  They’re small, almost inconsequential things that rarely have repercussions in the larger plot. But they affect how we view the character.
            Now, here’s two key things to remember when I’m playing around with a save the cat moment.  First, as I mentioned before, they always come fairly early in my story.  Second. the reader has never been against the character who's having this moment.  Because saving the cat isn’t about changing my reader's opinion of this person, it’s about emphasizing their opinion.  It’s a shortcut to help my reader like them more and get invested in them sooner so I can move on to bigger and better things.  The plot, for example.
            Why do I mention these key things?
            Well, there’s another device that mistakenly sometimes get lumped in with saving the cat, but it’s really the exact opposite.  It’s not even a device so much as a bad habit some people have.  It’s called patting the dog.  This is when one of my characters does a small token thing late in the story and it’s supposed to make up for the numerous awful things we’ve seen said character do up ‘til this point.
            See, patting the dog is usually third-act type stuff, because I’ve spent all my story up til now establishing this character in a certain way, that they have certain beliefs and loyalties.  And the whole point of patting the dog is to then reverse how my reader feels about this person.  If up until now, we wanted to see them dead under a bulldozer, at this point we should cheer for them.  This one small act’s supposed to cause an emotional 180 in the reader.
            Like I said, it’s pretty much the exact opposite of saving the cat.
            It’s worth noting—patting the dog is almost always applied to antagonists.  Usually as some kind of twist to turn the bad guy into some sort of anti-hero, or even a full on hero.  When Wakko murders a dozen families and their children, but then realizes killing *this* person would be wrong... that’s patting the dog.  Same with the evil cheerleader who’s made Dot’s senior year and prom a living nightmare, but then decides to chip and help   So’s the evil villian’s loyal lieutenant who tortures and maims our hero’s friends, but then discovers he has some vague relationship with the protagonist an decides to turn on his boss of ten years.       
            Now, this isn’t to say I can’t reverse how my readers see one of my characters.  That’s one of the big goals in writing—to change how people think about things. But it’s never going to be a quick fix I can pull off with one paragraph.  It’s going to take lots of moments and a lot of work.  It’s a process that can’t be rushed.  Even if I’m doing it with a clever twist, the reader needs to look back and see that the seeds of this change stretch all through my story.
            Because you may remember the other word for when someone does a sudden change of beliefs and loyalties.  It’s called a betrayal.  And no one likes to be betrayed. 
            Even if it’s just by something they’re reading.
            Next time, I’d like to talk a bit about what’s going on in that other scene.
            Until then, go write.